Thailand – elections proceed but crisis continues

Supporters of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra rally in Bangkok before 2 February elections

By Jane West

The conduct of the opposition in the Thai election held Sunday 2nd February was a success for the forces of Yinglunk Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party despite the attempts by the right-wing minority opposition movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, to disrupt the elections and delegitimise the results.

The opposition Democrat Party – which wants the elected Parliament replaced with an unelected ‘people’s council’ composed of opposition supporters drawn from the Thai urban elites, court and the army – announced a boycott of the elections. The minority opposition has not been able to win an election in Thailand since the Thaksinites won the first fully democratic election in the country in 2001 and knows its support remains limited to the urban elites and wealthy south. It therefore had to resort to boycotts and disruption.

The boycott was followed up with the announcement by, former Democratic Party minister, Suthep Thaugsuban’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which has been leading the blockades and protests in Bangkok over recent weeks, that it intended to disrupt voting and seek to prevent voters attending polling stations.

These tactics were implemented on 2nd February, but were not entirely successful. Most reports suggest that as much as 89 per cent of the polling went ahead without disruption, with the opposition only affecting the conduct of the election in 69 out of 375 polling districts. But the opposition boycott meant no elections were held in the wealthy south of the country, the opposition heartland, as no candidates stood.

Although the disruption was limited, it does mean that a number of by-elections will need to take place before a formal result can be declared and Yingluck Shinawatra will have to continue as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. The Electoral Commission – whose sympathies rest with the rightist, pro-elite opposition – has said that conducting the re-run by-elections may take as long as 6 months, despite a constitutional requirement that it organises sufficient by-elections within 30 days to open Parliament. Its delaying tactics aim at prolonging the instability and creating scope for on-going opposition efforts to undermine Yingluck’s government, encouraging the military to step in.

The opposition have also made a formal application to the Constitutional Court that it declares the 2nd February elections invalid, due to the disruption… that it organised!

The opposition has pledged to keep up its protests. Police reports say that the numbers on the protests in Bangkok have fallen to 2-3000 (although these figures are disputed by the opposition). But they use their slim forces to cause the maximum disruption by blockading government buildings and main intersections.

So far the army does not seem tempted to intervene, probably because it is clear that Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party does have a commanding majority in the country and a coup would therefore meet extensive resistance. This might change if there were any fracturing of Yingluck’s support. The right is therefore focused on blocking the payment of the government’s rice subsidy, which protects poor farmers. Accusations of graft and dishonesty are flying about, although no evidence has been presented. But the uneasy atmosphere has persuaded China to cancel a planned purchase of 1.2m tonnes of rice, which would have allowed the government to pay out to the rice farmers. The opposition hope that on-going delays to government rice subsidy payments due to the crisis may lead to problems in Puea Thai’s support, which will then allow a better relationship of forces for an army intervention.

Certainly, the Thai crisis shows no sign of ending soon posing an on-going danger that the army will change its mind and impose a coup government as they have done in the past.

For more background on the unfolding crisis in Thailand go to previous articles on this website here and here.